Recently, a friend passed along information about a possible new trend among some large retailers and their photo centers: film sent out for developing instead of in-store processing, is returned to customers in the form of low-quality scans on a disk without the negatives, which are discarded. While some who may casually shoot a disposable camera here and there or a random roll of film they found in a drawer may not care about the negatives, I, and many of my friends, would be very upset to not have them returned. Not only are the negatives the foundation of shooting film and a required part of the traditional printing process, they are the "original file" and no low quality scan can ever replace that little square of information.
While I develop my own black and white film, I generally rely on several local photo centers for developing rolls of 35mm C-41. Target, near where I work, had a great photo lab that would process my film in-house for $1/roll without prints. This ended last summer when a corporate decision was made to remove the Kodak processing machines from the stores and offer a print-only photo center for those with digital files. They may still offer a send-out service, but I was so annoyed that I didn't care to find out, and many CVS stores still offer in-house processing.
Back to the trashed-negatives issue, I was told that Wal-Mart photo centers were no longer returning negatives to save on postage costs and providing customers with images on a disk instead. This new "service" appears to be store or region-specific, as an Internet search yields conflicting reports of the practice. I contacted a corporate office to find out more and was told I would need to contact specific stores for more information (grr). After reaching out to the photo centers in three local Wal-Mart stores, I realized that it's just not worth all the effort. Two of the stores I contacted send the film out for processing; when I was transferred to the photo center for more information, I was left on hold for more than five minutes, so I just hung up. The third store I contacted in Fairfax, Virginia, develops film in-house and does return negatives to customers.
My suggestion for anyone with C-41 film is to verify with the photo center at the individual store, whether it is Wal-Mart, Target, or any other large retailer to find out whether or not the send-out processing service returns negatives and, if there is any question, to simply find an in-house processing lab, instead. Better yet, use one of the many film processing labs that have been in business for a long time (film's not dead, y'all).